Too old to train

The over 50’s make up a third of the UK’s workforce, but are the least likely to be offered training. Yet research shows that you can indeed ‘teach an old dog new tricks’. Isn’t it time to rethink your L&D policy for older workers & volunteers, asks Robin Hoyle?

The over 50s are no less likely to be effective learners and capable performers than their younger colleagues.

Is your organisation immune from prejudice about age and how does that play out in your L&D provision? Take a look at your L&D offering. If the statistics from UK government studies are right, then it’s twice as likely that the people who are being trained in your organisation are under 35 than over 45. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology reported in October 2011: “There is a sharp decrease in training once workers reach their mid-50s. Employers commonly believe that they will not get a good return on their investment in training for older workers.”

In another study, older workers themselves were reluctant to undertake further learning activities – believing that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ and besides, having been in work for so long what else is there for them to learn? This is echoed amongst employers. There may be a belief that older workers have lower cognitive faculties and are simply unable to learn.

A 2011 report by the Health and Safety Executive found that cognitive and physical performance varies hugely and does change with age, but that advanced age is a poor predictor of either physical or cognitive performance.  In other words, the over 50s are no less likely to be effective learners and capable performers than their younger colleagues.

We may need to challenge some long-held beliefs about older workers. In 2013, the over 50s make up 29% of the UK workforce. By 2030, there will 10 million over 50s in the workforce.  A 50 year old worker today may be working at 70, as pensions become unaffordable and the prospect of an impoverished old age seems less attractive than the 9am to 5pm.  In those remaining two decades, they are relatively unlikely to change jobs, about half as likely to look for another job as a younger worker and if they do apply, the same outmoded beliefs about longevity mean they will be less likely to be appointed.

What does the future hold?

So we’re going to face a working future where older people make up a larger proportion of the workforce and are more likely to stay longer with their employers. But surely, they know how to do their jobs don’t they?  Sure… if your workplace is going stay the same for the next 20 years.

While we can’t predict the future with certainty, we can look backwards.  Think about 1993 – a mere 20 years ago.  In 1993 were things that different?  Yes! No internet to speak of, very few personal computers, mobile phones had no key board, so no text messages.  Compare that to 2012, when almost 40 billion texts were sent from UK mobiles – a drop on previous years as SMS was replaced by instant messaging, twitter and facebook.

Beyond technology, the workforce was different too: in 1993, 11% of people entering the UK workforce had a degree, whiles 26% had no qualifications at all.  By 2011, those statistics had reversed: the proportion of those entering the workforce with a degree had risen to 24% (so more than doubled) while those without qualifications had dropped to 11%.

So what will the next 20 years bring about?  Whatever the future holds the people working in 2033 may need to master radically different skillsets. If we think L&D matters at all then we need to be delivering to the folks who are going to be around.

The problem is there’s real evidence that older workers are not being offered CPD.  In a survey I carried out with an organisation which made a great play of its ‘coaching culture’, not one respondent over the age of 45 had access to a coach, or coaching sessions with a line manager or senior team member. In an academic survey reported by the CIPD, fewer than 3% of over 50s without qualifications had been involved in job related training in the previous month, compared with more than 10% of their younger colleagues.  Where training is offered to the long serving staff member it is of the tick box, compliance variety rather than anything which seeks to change behaviour. This is a shocking scenario.

The reality is that a more experienced worker will have different training needs than a 21 year old straight out of college.  So how can you engage older people in their own learning, and retain and use their years of experience and keep them updated?

Here are 7 things which organisations can do to support older workers & volunteers:

  1. Collect their stories and build the organisation’s memory.  We are constantly told that stories matter in training.  I urge all L&D teams to organise a kind of oral history project to gather stories and expertise from their older colleagues.  This engagement also helps older member of staff identify what they know and don’t know, and possibly identify their current learning needs.
  2. Involve them in training others – from induction onwards.  Remember to train is to learn twice, so engage them with the delivery of formal or informal sessions for newer, younger colleagues.
  3. Co-create new training programmes with experienced staff – involve them in sharpening the learning required for new recruits or junior personnel: design what’s needed rather than simply turning up to tell a few war stories. Once again this provides a chance for them to identify their own skills gaps.
  4. Create separate training sessions for older workers, based around discussion and problem solving. Helping people focus exclusively on what they need helps them to address their concerns that further L&D won’t be much use to them. Having a chance to build on their existing competences is perceived very favourably by older workers.
  5. Create ‘externships’ – opportunities to work outside the organisation, perhaps with community groups or local charities. Very often a new situation and a new challenge can be a route to stimulating learning.  It can also give older workers a chance to think about what comes after retirement.
  6. Build learning circles – especially for those older workers who are using self-managed learning or on-line modules. There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence which shows that older employees working together to master new software (for example) very often do better when learning collectively than when learning in isolation.
  7. Build succession plans for and with older workers, especially as they approach retirement.  As they reduce their work commitments involve them in mentoring their successor.  This works as well on the shop floor as it does in the executive suite.

About Robin Hoyle

Robin Hoyle is the Senior Consultant with Learnworks Ltd and the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement, published by Kogan Page. Connect with him on twitter: @RHoyle


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